We inhabit an interesting time in the history of humanity, where a small number of people, numbering not more than a few hundred, but really more like a few dozen, mainly living in cities like San Francisco and New York, mainly male, and mainly between the ages of 22 and 35, are having a hugely outsized effect on the rest of our species.
Through the software they design and introduce to the world, these engineers transform the daily routines of hundreds of millions of people. Previously, this kind of mass transformation of human behavior was the sole domain of war, famine, disease, and religion, but now it happens more quietly, through the software we use every day, which affects how we spend our time, and what we do, think, and feel.
In this sense, software can be thought of as a new kind of medicine, but unlike medicine in capsule form that acts on a single human body, software is a different kind of medicine that acts on the behavioral patterns of entire societies.
The designers of this software call themselves “software engineers”, but they are really more like social engineers.
Through their inventions, they alter the behavior of millions of people, yet very few of them realize that this is what they are doing, and even fewer consider the ethical implications of that kind of power.
On a small scale, the effects of software are benign. But at large companies with hundreds of millions of users, something so apparently small as the choice of what should be a default setting will have an immediate impact on the daily behavior patterns of a large percentage of the planet.
At Facebook, for example, they use a term called “Serotonin”, which refers to the bonding hormone released by the brain in moments of intimacy. In design reviews, Facebook designers are asked, “Where is the serotonin in this design?” meaning, “how will this new feature release bonding hormones in the brains of our users, to keep them coming back for more?”
In its capacity to transform the behavior of people, software is a kind of drug — a new kind of drug. As there are many kinds of drugs (caffeine, echinacea, Tylenol, Viagra, heroin, crack), so are there many kinds of software, feeding different urges and creating different outcomes.